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The Sirens of Suspense




Michael Johnston was born in 1973 in Cleveland, Ohio. As a child and a teen he was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. He studied architecture and ancient history at Lehigh University and during a lecture on the history of ancient Egypt, the seed of an idea was born. He earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University, graduating at the top of his class. Michael worked as an architect in New York City before moving to Los Angeles. Sparked by the change of locale, a visit to the desert, and his growing dissatisfaction with the architectural industry, he sought a way to merge his interests in architecture and history with his love of fantasy. By day he worked as an architect, but by night he wrote and researched an epic fantasy novel inspired by the history of ancient Egypt and the tragic story of King Lear. After working this way for several years, he shut down his successful architecture practice and resolved to write full time. He now lives and writes in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.



Find Michael on Twitter and Facebook.


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In Soleri, I wrote an epic fantasy novel, something I’ve dubbed King Lear in ancient Egypt, a novel packed with history and architecture, rich in detail, complex in plot, but I’ve already written about my inspirations for the novel. There is a synopsis on the book. It covers the main details and anyone can read the first few chapters online. I’m going to talk about my love for art and the art that I collect and probably, tangentially (at least) talk a little about the book. I was an architecture major in college, but I spent a lot of time in art history classes both in graduate and undergraduate school and even more time in museums. I’ve always loved art, both as a practitioner and as someone who collects it. The two overlap and they definitely inform each other. As an epic fantasy writer, I build worlds, I create a mood, a place the reader can inhabit. I look for some of those same qualities in the art I collect. I love to find pieces that I can look at for hours or art that offers up some new idea or experience each time I look at it.

Kris Kuksi is probably the most obvious example of this idea. Google his name and you’ll know exactly what I am talking about. He buildings large assemblages out of miniature figures, sometimes adding thousands of characters to each of his finished pieces. The final works of art are usually covered in a pale white or green patina, one that resembles the oxide on an ancient statue. The color unifies all the divergent elements of each assemblage. The pieces are complex and compelling and each time I approach the work I find myself drawn into some new character that I’ve never seen or some piece of the assemblage that I had not yet contemplated. I see each of his assemblages as an object of meditation. They are spheres unto themselves and I can slip into them in almost the same way I slip into a fantasy novel, as if I were entering another world.

Walter and Paloma Munoz are another pair of artists whose work conjures up an otherworldly quality. They make snow globes and photograph them. They also produce small, snow globe like scenes filled with tiny figures which are then photographed to produce the finished piece of art. In either case, they create dream-like environments, sometimes horrific, but more often than not they have a melancholy nature, as if they were expressing a dream of longing for what we cannot attain. Imagine a scene of snow-capped hills with a dozen figures carrying suitcases gazing at the white, snowy sky, simply waiting. The image is ambiguous, so it allows the viewer to simply look and contemplate. Where are they? What sort of place is this? Is it a dream? Are they truly travelers (the name of the series)? Where are they going? Where do they want to go? Each work contains a whole world of questions.

I own a piece by Johannes Albers that is housed in a glass box. Inside there is a street light which illuminates a collection of forgotten things, dust, a penny, a screw, some tape. He did a whole series of artworks that illuminate forgotten places. These forgotten places are treated as artifacts from a possibly extinct civilization, ours. He claims to be inspired by this quote from Nietzsche:

"Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of "world history," but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die."[1]

When speaking of forgotten things and lost relics, Daniel Arsham is another artist that comes to mind. His collection of future relics depicts objects from our recent past as if they were relics from an ancient civilization. He takes a cassette tape, an old analog phone, a Walkman, or a polaroid camera and reproduces them as fractured plaster casts, as if they were reproduced from the ancient, now missing remains of the actual object. I believe the series was inspired by the plaster casts that were made of human remains found in the buried city of Pompeii. The bodies were destroyed by time, but they left hollows in the ash and plaster casts were made from those hollows. The plaster casts in the future relic series resemble those Pompeiian plaster casts. But they are relics of a past that is not yet ancient. They are from a future that has not yet occurred. It’s a wonderful idea and each time I look at one of the future relics I’ve collected I find a bit of joy in this idea.

I could go on. I love photography. I’m unable to afford and Adreas Gursky, but the work is immensely moving. I find the work of Edward Burtynsky, Todd Hido, and David Maisel to be compelling and far more easily acquired. Art is where I go for inspiration, for meditation, where I find a sense of wonder. I’ve tried to imbue my novel with a that same feeling. I hope the readers, when they open Soleri, find a bit of that wonder.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche,On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873)



WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE ARTIST? TELL US or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of SOLERI! (US entrants only, please.)



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